The next vision of smart cities

Urban planner Anthony Townsend has spent years thinking about the relationship between cities and technology. I spoke to him about his book Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia.

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Your book argues that there’s a need for grassroots action rather than top-down, corporate-led implementation of smart cities. How do you see architects and engineers fitting into this picture?

Architects and engineers for the most part have to serve the interests of their clients. There’s a balance that has to be struck, almost on a project-by-project basis, about how much they can push back in saying a piece of technology related to the business model for the project, or even a placemaking strategy, has unintended consequences, or that there may be a more democratic or innovative approach.

A lot of the vision of smart cities has been shaped by IT engineers and marketers. The problem there is not just that it’s sort of a naïve vision being pushed by companies with very short-term sales goals. It just doesn’t appreciate the complexity of good urbanism, and the role that both communications and information play in creating good places that people want to buy, work, live in.

The last five years have almost been a false start. In 2008, the world is 50% urban for the first time; you have more mobile broadband lines fixed for the first time; you’ve got more things and people on the internet for the first time. And then the recession hits. It’s that recession that drives a lot of these companies to start looking at government — particularly local government — and real estate developers as customers.

I think what we’re gearing up for now is determining the next vision of smart cities

That vision hasn’t sold very well. Their smart city strategy hasn’t played out the way that they hoped. They are capturing some piece of the infrastructure spending that’s going on; that’s where the Arups and the Buro Happolds of the world are doing well, figuring out how to integrate the 1 to 2% of a typical construction budget, whether you’re looking at the building scale, the neighborhood scale, or the scale of the entire infrastructure sector. It’s really just a couple percent that gets spent on smart stuff. But it adds tremendous value to the rest, so it’s a very strategic slice.

I think what we’re gearing up for now is determining the next vision of smart cities. What I was trying to do with the book was take that tiny little pinhole-sized view of the future that we were getting from corporate marketing, blow it up, and tie it to broader debates about the nature of urbanization. I wanted to look back in history and say, well, what happened the last couple of times that we introduced a whole slew of technologies to address the problems of cities? What were the choices we made, what were the outcomes, and what have we learned?

Particularly when we look at postwar motorization, a lot of the new urban forms that were envisioned and then built sort of just happened, because of bad planning or the lack of planning. It wasn’t a particularly healthy process. A lot of what we’re trying to do with this wave of smart technologies is undo the unintended consequences of the previous wave.

Credit Flickr user Daniel Lobo

The book’s subtitle is “the quest for a new utopia.” It’s not design for a new utopia, because I don’t have the answers. I think in a lot of cases it’s misguided to think that way. Songdo and Masdar and Dongtan, these really heavily planned and heavily integrated places where a tiny fraction of the population is going to live, are kind of quixotic attempts to masterplan the future. But the future is the sprawling megacities of the developing world. Or, if you believe McKinsey, the 500 cities with 500,000 to a million people that no one’s ever heard of and starchitects aren’t bashing each other’s heads to try to get into. New visions for those places that leverage all the capabilities of these technologies are what I think are going to be really exciting.

The future is the sprawling megacities of the developing world

There are over 570,000 local governments in the world, and the vision for the future is going to be parallel innovation in all of those rather than a couple of megacities. That’s what I’m hoping will come out of this — that people will no longer say that visions of smart cities are something that they have to consume, but something that they can create on their own.

I think these professions — architecture, engineering, planning — are at an ideal point to contribute to this process because they understand the urban issues at stake, as well as the capabilities and limitations of the technology.

You wrote in the book, “Architects and engineers of smart cities will need to draw on both informatics and urbanism simultaneously. There are about a dozen people in the world today who can do this proficiently.” Can you say a bit more about how you see this playing out in the next few decades? Do you think there’s sufficient recognition of this gap?

It’s getting better. I taught a class on this stuff last year that I hadn’t taught in eight years, and it was clear that you’d skip over the two or three weeks that explained the basic fundamentals of the internet. They have a lot of that in their pocket, and what they didn’t they could get from the tech and business press. That’s a big change. These things are intimate parts of people’s everyday lives even if they are invisible, which is why it’s been harder to explain this stuff than, say, how transportation works.

In government, you’ve got a lot of people who’ve gotten schooled very quickly in the key issues because they have constituencies or leaders who are saying “What is this stuff, what can it do for us, what’s the cost?” And a lot of marketing messages and pitches have been directed at them. There are also a lot of NGOs now that are doing education and training, which I think is helping.

But in terms of the educational response, it’s actually been pretty lackluster. One of the things that you’ve seen in the last 12 to 18 months is a huge surge in the formation of urban science research groups at universities all around the world. There are three just in New York City that have launched at Columbia and NYU and the new Cornell campus. There are a couple in London, one at the University of Chicago. It’s kind of a boom. And it’s being driven mostly by physical scientists — physicists, computer scientists, mathematicians — getting interested in cities because there’s suddenly all this data and this vast complexity that they can really sink their teeth into.

But those groups have not found a way to systematically tie themselves to social science, public administration, planning, or architecture. So they’re doing very scientifically interesting research with a really poorly conceived vision of what problems cities face, what the usable outputs will be from the research, and even how to do that research in a way that is more easy to transfer to the marketplace.

I think urban planning is almost going through a massive rewiring

I think that that’s setting us up for a couple of things. It’s going to be a lot longer before these groups produce new knowledge that has practical applications in cities. It’s going to be produced in a way that it’s not as easy to consume. And in some ways, it may be ignoring a vast body of research that’s come before it but was done by people who weren’t using the same toolset. A lot of things that are being said are very dismissive of the way social science has been done for the last hundred years, largely coming from people who perceive themselves as hard scientists.

I think urban planning is almost going through a massive rewiring, very similar to what happened when it first formally emerged about 100 years ago. You had people from all different disciplines driven both by the sense that there’s a crisis and that there are all these new techniques and technologies that can be used to study and address urban problems. It’s kind of a free-for-all — potentially very good, but you could get some very bad ideas coming out of it too.

The book got reviewed in Nature, which I thought was really odd since it’s not a scientific book. The reviewer criticized it for not being scientific enough. I wrote back to her and I said, “Look, I’m saying that new scientific ideas are very frequently used to do bad things to cities.” I don’t know if that registered or not, but I think that’s something that we need to be on the lookout for. And particularly if we’re not doing research with an eye towards applying that knowledge in some useful context in the city. You can draw some really strange conclusions from the work.

The one that I always cite is Geoffrey West’s studies that have come out of the Santa Fe institute looking at how the metabolism of cities scale as they get bigger. West did a lot of research looking at organisms. The elephant has a much slower metabolism than the hummingbird; an organism’s metabolism slows as it gets bigger.

Cities’ metabolisms actually speed up. If you play that out, basically the only strategy for cities to survive is to get bigger, to keep solving their problems at a faster rate than they create them. That’s sort of the dynamic that he describes. But from an urban planning point of view, that makes no sense at all. I have no idea what to do with that information, because our toolkit is sort of curated growth, cultivated growth, right? — in some cases actively blocking growth, and in some severe cases managing decline. So it’s a fascinating scientific observation which looks really great in a single elegant formula, but no one has any idea what to do with it.

The research agenda has to be set in some form by the people who are going to be impacted by it

The reason that’s bad, I think, is that you can’t have the scientific agenda set only by the curiosity of scientists, particularly when it comes to research about cities and the survival of our urban civilization. The research agenda has to be set in some form by the people who are going to be impacted by it. We’re not really seeing that yet. There’s a lot of curiosity about the big data of cities and what it might tell us without necessarily directing it from a focused point of view.

Do you think this could be explained as a kind of pure versus applied research dichotomy? Or is it more of an active pushback from the scientific community in not wanting to align itself with people who have traditionally worked on these issues?

I think there’s a handful of people at the core that view their methods as superior and think that most of what’s been done to study cities in the past has been nonscientific, non-rigorous, and invalid. Fair enough; they may have a point in many places. But there also needs to be a process of integrating the knowledge and experience that has come before.

There’s a paper that came out of Santa Fe recently by another guy, Luis Bettencourt, who basically felt the need to prove to himself what most people that have been involved in urban planning or even urban simulation know, which is that comprehensive urban planning is computationally intractable. Trying to simulate an entire city for a ten year period or something, for example — there are so many possible choices and different outcomes that they actually outnumber the number of atoms in the universe.

To me, that’s just one of several examples that we’ve seen where this new cadre of urban scientists are proving to themselves things that were already known or intuitive by practitioners and keen observers. There’s a core that sees itself as taking urban studies into a more rational era, but I think there’s also a growing array of more practically minded engineers and applied scientists. It’s going to take time. They just haven’t figured out how to bridge the barriers between what they’re doing and government, planning, construction, and design.

I must say, though, that I think the architecture/engineering/design world has not aggressively enough tried to educate itself, its institutions, its educators, its practitioners in these issues. When I teach my class at NYU, I get people from all across the university because there’s such a systematic neglect of this intersection of cities and technology. I always end up with a couple of visionary students from almost every school in the university that are finding inadequate treatment of this stuff in their own school: business school, law school, art, media, public administration, the urban engineering school that was just started at NYU.

Architects are also some of the least informed people about this stuff. I think it’s because they’re obviously very project focused and client focused. But I think it’s also because to them technology is primarily a design tool, a tool for solving a problem, not a pervasive force that’s changing the underlying assumptions about, for instance, why you even need a building. What is the structural change in the economy or land use or transportation that’s creating the need for this building? They take it a priori that the building is needed, and their exploration sort of stops there. I think that’s something that’s slowly changing, but seems to me surprising that it’s stuck.

With regards to planning, I find there isn’t a distinct collection of stuff that smart cities deals with. The assets are held in different public and private sector hands. It’s policy, it’s citizen behavior, it’s marketplaces for consumer technology — you have to dabble in a lot of different worlds to really understand the whole picture. People who are just interested in social justice or economic development or whatever may miss some of the key pieces or relationships.

If you could come into an Arup or an HOK and set up a program to help us create the kind of smart cities you think would have the greatest benefit for society, what would you do?

One thing that IBM did that I thought was pretty clever, and that benefited them as well as the world, was to take their corporate service core program and basically turn it into a smart city pro bono consulting program. They’ve amassed a portfolio of a couple thousand pretty significant urban projects that they did pro bono.

I would encourage people to get involved in some kind of community project where they’re thinking about the infrastructure and design and business issues that they deal with for their clients at a smaller scale. To give you an example, I’m working on this project in Hoboken, where I live, to build a solar powered mesh WiFi network. If we get it right, it will basically be paid for and built by all the citizens and small businesses in the community. It will be pretty much independent; it’s basically going to be a very loosely knit coop. It was inspired by the shared experience of the flooding during Superstorm Sandy, losing cell networks for eight days. If all works as planned, we’ll have telecommunications in the event of almost any kind of foreseeable disaster.

There are all kinds of projects like that out there. Taking something that involves technology, community, and place and really sinking your teeth into it, I think, is the way to start to get past those grandiose visions and really understand what it means to do this from the grassroots.

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